Six people were killed following a liquid nitrogen leak at Foundation Food Group in Gainesville, authorities said.
Five were found dead and another died at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, according to hospital spokesman Sean Couch. The six dead were identified by the Hall County Sheriff's Office on Friday morning.
Hall County Fire Services and Gainesville Fire were called out around 10:12 a.m. to a report of burns at the plant. Firefighters discovered a large number of employees who had evacuated the building.
Division Chief Zach Brackett said there was not an explosion, which he said was erroneously reported on social media.
“Preliminary indications are that a nitrogen line was ruptured inside the facility,” said Nicholas Ancrum, vice president of human resources for Foundation Food Group. “While we wait for confirmation, we are very sad to say that six team members appear to have died, and others were transported to the hospital with very serious injuries.”
Ancrum said the team members involved were from the maintenance, supervisory and management teams.
“Every team member is equally important to us, and our hearts go out to their families and communities who have suffered such a devastating loss,” he said.
Authorities referred to the site as Prime-Pak, which merged with Victory Processing Inc. to form Foundation Food Group.
Ancrum did not answer further questions at the 3:30 p.m. news conference.
Hall County Fire Services initially transferred nine patients to Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Three of these were Gainesville firefighters and one Hall County firefighter “for an evaluation of respiratory complaints,” Brackett said at a morning press conference.
More than 130 people were transported by school bus to Free Chapel for evaluation.
Sean Couch said there were 12 patients in total who were transferred to Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Seven were treated and released, and another three were in critical condition as of 6 p.m. Thursday. One was in fair condition, and one died at the hospital.
A Gofundme page has been set up to assist affected families.
Gainesville Fire spokesman Keith Smith said all three Gainesville firefighters were checked out of the hospital by 3 p.m. Thursday and sent home to recuperate.
Brackett said the one Hall County firefighter was in stable condition and would likely be released Friday, Jan. 29.
Though hospital and first responders did not comment on what injuries occurred, they did describe them as respiratory concerns.
The health system has seen more than 270 COVID-19 positive patients since late December and peaked at 355 patients Jan. 8, straining the hospital’s resources. As the numbers have trended downward in the past few weeks, Couch said they still have an expanded capacity. There were 14 beds available at Gainesville’s hospital Thursday, according to NGHS’ data. Couch said capacity was not an issue for accepting those who were transported.
The incident shut down Memorial Park Drive/Road, where Prime Pak is located, during the late morning and early afternoon.
Students at nearby Lyman Hall Elementary School were safe and indoors. Officials there heard from authorities about the incident at 10:30 a.m.
“They’re eating lunch, going about learning and their business,” Hall County Schools spokesman Stan Lewis said earlier.
Couch added that school officials were informing parents about what had happened. The school planned to dismiss at its regular time of 2:20 p.m. as the roadway was reopened, Lewis said.
Buses were running but delays were expected. The school system asked that parents meet their students at the bus stop to ensure adult supervision was available following the incident.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is handling the death investigations, and no identities were released Thursday. The scene was deemed safe around 1:40 p.m., Sheriff’s Office spokesman Derreck Booth said.
“A lot of these folks that came into work today did not have any idea what would happen, nor did their families,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said. “They’re not in a profession that you would expect something like this to happen.”
The Georgia Fire Marshal’s Office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration were on scene.
U.S. Department of Labor regional spokesman Eric Lucero confirmed an OSHA investigation was underway.
"They have made contact with the employer and are starting to compile information right now," he said.
Lucero added that there is an open investigation concerning an employee injury at Prime Pak in December. No further details are available because the investigation is still open, he said.
Gov. Brian Kemp also responded to the incident, saying, “Our hearts are broken hearing about the tragedy.”
“Marty, the girls and I ask all Georgians to join us in praying for the families facing a terrible loss and the other employees who are receiving medicare,” he said. “May God be a hand of peace, comfort and healing in the days ahead.”
See the original Gainesville Times story here.